There’s no better way for preparing for a trip abroad (or merely satisfying your worldly curiosity) than with a good list of reading material.
Over the past six years, I’ve had my nose in a healthy selection of books set in South America, both fiction and non-fiction to help me get to grips with life, culture and, more often than not, wild history in this part of the world.
I’ve read some crackers and used my favourites to put together this article: here are some of the best books about South America that you definitely need to add to your reading list.
General books about South America
Open Veins of Latin America – Eduardo Galeano
A challenging read in that it’s a crash course in Latin American economic history and policies over the past half millennia, Open Veins of Latin America remains a seminal read for anyone interested in learning about the cultural climate of the continent – and how we got here.
Galeano explores in depth why a land so rich in mineral wealth remains a hotbed of raging poverty and ostentatious displays of wealth.
He explores the colonial and modern influences of the Spanish, British and US forces and how this continent, like no other to quite the same extent, has been brutally exploited for its riches.
The Rough Guide to South America
This exact guidebook (well, previous editions) has been my Bible for most of my jaunts across South America. While guidebooks do go out of date very quickly, I’m still a huge fan – you just can’t beat having this amount of essential information in one easy-to-read place.
So, if – like me – you like to have a physical guidebook for your travels that you can highlight, scribble in and dogear.
I fall short at ripping out the pages of places I’ve visited; if you do this, you are a heathen), then I believe it remains the best and most reliable guidebook that you can get your hands on.
The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey through South America – Ernesto Guevara
Few South American historical figures have found their way into the international imagination more than Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a young Argentine medical student turned political revolutionary who became a major figure in the Cuban Revolution.
Much of his ideology stems from 23-year-old Che’s 1952 motorbike journey across South America, reported in this lyrical and highly engaging travelogue.
It charts his travels through and encounters with the dazzling landscapes of the continent, as well as with the poverty and repression that would inform his political leanings in later life.
The Voyage of the Beagle – Charles Darwin
On December 27, 1831, the HMS Beagle set sail from Plymouth Sound in England on what would become a five-year voyage that circumnavigated the globe. Aboard was an as yet undistinguished young graduate, Charles Darwin, whose seminal narrative, The Voyage of the Beagle, covers the journey.
It focuses on South America as he vividly recreates his interactions with the people of South America, from Brazil, to Argentina, Chile, Peru and Ecuador.
His time spent studying the flora and fauna in the Galapagos Islands informed what would become his ground-breaking book, On the Origin of Species, fundamentally changing our understanding of evolutionary biology.
Books set in South America: Bolivia
Marching Powder – Thomas McFadden and Rusty Young
The are few prisons in South America – perhaps the world – that inspire as much interest as San Pedro in La Paz. Taking up one entire block, it’s Bolivia’s largest prison and one where the inmates aren’t assigned a cell.
Instead, inside it operates like its own society, with prisoners running shops and restaurants and paying rent to be able to afford a place to live, alongside their wives and children who pass freely through the prison gates each morning to work or go to school.
Marching Powder describes the experiences of the British inmate Thomas McFadden, who found himself living in San Pedro after attempting to smuggle cocaine out of the country.
The true story follows the years he spent in San Pedro and the prison tours he used to offer to travellers who would spend a day inside, and which even found their way into the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to Bolivia.
Books about South America: Chile
The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende
From one of Latin America’s most acclaimed novelists, this novel set in Chile weaves a tale of three generations of women in the Trueba family. Drawing heavily on the authors’ own kaleidoscope of enthralling – if sometimes truly barmy – relatives, Allende’s three female leads, Clara, Blanca and Alba take us by the hand into Chilean society, warts and all.
Culminating in the dictatorship of 1973, the beautifully written The House of the Spirits manages to mix non-fiction with the author’s own brand of magical realism, making her characters and their fates seem both ir-real and utterly believable.
The Statues That Walked: Unravelling the Mystery of Easter Island – Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo
Two archaeologists involved in digs in the early 2000s on Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, attempt to pick apart the myriad stories that have been told about the island’s doomed fate in the very readable The Statues that Walked.
Were the islanders to blame for the deforestation and soil erosion believed to have caused the collapse of civilisation? Why were the moai statues pushed off of their sacred platforms?
And, the question that has plagued researchers for decades: How exactly did the islanders move the moai? All are answered in this compelling read.
Deep Down Dark – Héctor Tobar
There’s a palpable urgency in this remarkable true story of the 33 Chilean miners who became world famous for being buried alive in a mine – and somehow lived to tell the tale.
Journalist Héctor Tobar’s retelling of the 69 days they were trapped underground in Deep Down Dark is through hours of interviews with the surviving men.
It’s a thrilling and tragic masterpiece told from the dark depths inside of the mine from the miners’ perspectives and those on the outside. Tobar skilfully weaves together a compelling narrative of a seemingly futile attempt at saving these forsaken men from a suffocating death beneath ground.
Book about South Ameica: Colombia
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez’s epic novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, has been widely described as one of the greatest books of the 19th century, winning both the Nobel Prize for Literature and the hearts of readers over the last five decades since it was published.
Following the fate of the Buendía family of the fictional Colombian town of Macondo, it touches on the themes of love and solitude and the age-old
difficulty of reconciling these two emotions in what is an epic tragedy depicting a century of cyclical madness, hyperbole and fantasy.
Books about South America: Patagonia
In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin
Few travelogues have reached the realms of literary celebrity quite like Chatwin’s wonderful tale of his trip through a fabled land where brontosaurus are perfectly preserved in glaciers, Welsh settlers drink from delicate, patterned china in the middle of the pampas and outlaws slink away to cabins on the eastern skirts of the Andes Mountains to plot their next bank robbery.
Patagonia has certainly changed since In Patagonia was written in the 70s, but Chatwin’s evocative descriptions of his surroundings and painstakingly-reproduced conversations with the inhabitants of this wild land that he meets en route are a fascinating introduction to anyway seeking to travel at the uttermost ends of the earth.
The Old Patagonian Express – Paul Theroux
What would it be like to travel the length of the Americas, from Boston right through Central America and out into the heart of Patagonia? Only Theroux can tell you in this epic trip through this vast, unforgiving continent.
Self-involved and giving far less room to the voices of those he meets along the way than Chatwin, The Old Patagonian Express is still a true travel classic,
reflecting as it does on the very art and nature of travel and how doing it alone is both proof of one’s success and one’s utter foolishness.
Patagonia: A Cultural History – Chris Moss
British journalist and regional expert Chris Moss explores the history of this remote and mysterious part of South America in the fascinating Patagonia: A Cultural History.
Moss gives Patagonia’s oft-forgotten and now mostly extinct indigenous populations a space for their tale of attempted survival against the elements and violent colonisers, while unpacking the myths, legends and facts of Patagonia.
Everything from the Kingdom of Araucanía and Patagonia, an unrecognised state proclaimed by a young, deluded Frenchman, to the visit of a 22-year-old Englishman by the name of Charles Darwin and the arrival of author Bruce Chatwin find their way into this readable book. Moss offers an insightful look into how humans through the ages have responded to this region at the very ends of the earth.
Books set in South America: Peru
Turn Right at Machu Picchu – Mark Adams
Following in the footsteps of self-proclaimed Machu Picchu “discoverer”, Hiram Bingham III, Adams – a decidedly less adventurous soul – sets out to encounter the expansive and extraordinary landmarks of the Inca civilisation, employing the help of Australian, Crocodile Dundee-esq Jon to help him on his way.
Mixing well-research historical fact with a witty reflection on his own journey,
Turn Right at Machu Picchu is a must-read for anyone who’s been – or will be heading to – the legendary citadel of Machu Picchu.
The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland – Hugh Thomson
British explorer and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Hugh Thomson sets out to re-discover the Inca stronghold of Llactapata, buried deep within the cloud forest of Peru. Weaving into the narrative his own extensive research into Inca culture and history, The White Rock follows his dangerous adventure, combining Thomson’s wit and fascinating knowledge of a culture that we still know so little about and making it essential reading for those wanting to explore beyond the usual Inca sights.
Eight Feet in the Andes – Dervla Murphy
Irish author Dervla Murphy, her nine-year-old daughter and a mule called Juana make their way slowly but surely across the entire length of Peru on this adventurous travelogue that crosses 1,300 miles of remote, Andean terrain. Starting out in Cajamarca in the north and ending in Cusco in the far south, Murphy and her daughter overcome the challenges of the journey with unyielding humour, as they discover
remote communities and paths that were probably last walked by the Inca.
Last Days of the Incas – Kim MacQuarrie
This dramatic retelling of the Spanish conquest of Peru is a stirring account of the violent battles that saw the Inca Empire felled by a significantly smaller – if better armed – force led by Francisco Pizarro.
Extensively researched and told in a compelling and highly readable style, Last Days of the Incas is the one historical book to read if you want to learn about the dramatic final history of South America’s most powerful empire.
Books about South America: Paraguay
At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig – John Gimlette
Irreverent in style but extensively researched and one of the most honest analyses of Paraguayan history even written, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig sets the scene of a country that was once the most prosperous and advanced in the whole of South America, but was dragged to its ruin by the devastating egotism – and avoidable wars – by President Solano López.
Colourful, entertaining prose adds in Gimlette’s own adventures in Paraguay, interweaving stories of dictators, despots and Irish mistresses as we come to learn about – and love – the politically corrupt and poverty-stricken country that Paraguay is today.
The Honorary Consul – Graham Greene
Centring on the story of an Honorary Consul who lives in Corrientes on the northern Argentine border and is mistakenly kidnapped by a group of revolutionaries, The Honorary Consul introduces us Eduardo Plarr, a doctor forced by necessity to help save the man he hates. Reflecting the 1970s and Argentina’s “Dirty War”, where many foreign-born dignitaries became targets of kidnapping, this novel examines what drives us to commit different acts: adultery, abduction and even murder.
Available in paperback
Falling off the Map – Pico Iyer
With his usual deft eye for detail and sharp ability to highlight the eccentric – if not utterly bizarre – in every country, Falling off the Map sees Iyer travelling to the world’s loneliest places in this collection of short non-fiction travelogues. He lands in Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital, describing it – not so flatteringly – as like “a used car lot in a border town”.
Wading through Paraguay’s swamp-thick history, littered as it is with the world’s longest-ruling dictator, Nazi war criminals and rampant corruption, he also explores why Paraguay is a place with which you can’t but help to fall in love.
Books set in South America: The Guiana
Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge – John Gimlette
With his usual blend of razor-sharp wit, microscopic observation and tendency to seek out the absurd, Gimlette turns his attention in Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge to the Guianas, those three forgotten countries on the northeastern tip of the continent. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana are so rarely mentioned in any literature but this book explores the lands that “have never been truly possessed”.
Gimlette tracks the ghostly steps of long-dead gold diggers, suicidal members of US cults and starts to realise how much of these nations’ history is soon to be lost, as it’s reclaimed by the ravenous natural landscape from which it was once born.